The Clown Priest

St. Louis Carl Kabat is back in the home he knows best -- a prison cell

Carl Kabat

On the morning of June 20, three men dressed in clown suits used a bolt-cutter to break into a nuclear-missile facility in North Dakota. Once inside, they emptied baby bottles filled with their own blood onto an intercontinental ballistic missile silo. They proceeded to pound the silo with hammers and, with a can of black spray paint, affixed an anti-nuclear message to the structure that housed the 40-ton weapon.

The trio was unable to disarm the Minuteman III, located on a small plot of government land 100 miles northwest of Bismarck. Within minutes, security forces from nearby Minot Air Force Base arrived, and the men were whisked to jail. Each of them face federal charges of destroying national defense property and government property, which carry maximum prison sentences of twenty and ten years, respectively.

Those involved were St. Louis Catholic priest Carl Kabat, a well-known anti-nuclear activist, along with Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, a pair of Catholic workers with the Loaves & Fishes program in Duluth, Minnesota.

Gabriel Myers, a spokesman for Minot Air Force Base, says there is no way the group could have harmed the missile. "If they hammered on that thing for about 500 years they wouldn't do any damage to that weapon," says Myers. "[The silo is] huge, concrete, and it's heavily fortified. Yes, missiles are scattered all over North Dakota, and there's not people sitting out at them 24 hours a day. However, there are people watching out over them. Even if a rabbit goes into that launch facility, they're going to know about it, and they'll go check it out."

On that June morning, Kabat appeared at the silo clad in a yellow wig and a one-piece jumpsuit painted with a giant black perma-smile. For decades his modus operandi has been to wear clown costumes when out on the civil-disobedience trail. "St. Paul says we are fools for God's sake. I change it to say we're fools and clowns for God and humanity's sake," the 72-year-old Kabat says by telephone from Bismarck's Burleigh County Jail. (Because there is no federal detention center in Bismarck, the United States Marshal Service contracts with local jails to house federal detainees.)

Kabat adds that he and the other men fully intended to be caught — all in the name of publicizing their antipathy for nuclear weapons. With the spray paint, says the priest, "We wrote, 'It's a sin to build a nuclear weapon,' which is a quote from Father Richard McSorley, and 'Oppose a culture of death,' [a quote] from Pope John Paul II."

The saboteurs were initially charged with misdemeanors, and their bail was set at $500 each. None of them, though, expressed any interest in paying, choosing instead to remain behind bars. "It keeps the focus on why we're here," says Kabat. "Also, we would have had to stay in North Dakota, and we don't really know anybody here in the state." He adds that he and the others will represent themselves. No trial date has been set.

Carl Kabat is nearly bald, and his right eye barely functions, owing to a failed medical procedure many years ago. No stranger to the confines of a jail cell, he estimates that, all told, he's spent sixteen years in the hole for various nuclear and death-penalty protests.

Kabat is a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a worldwide order of Catholic priests committed to missionary work and service to the poor. He says his nuclear activism is consistent with the Oblate mission — that the government should use its resources to help the less fortunate rather than build weapons systems.

His nuclear protests began around the time Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. In fact, Kabat's first anti-nuclear demonstration took place in Carter's hometown of Plains, Georgia. A few years later, Kabat was arrested for pouring blood on the front pillars of the White House. That's when he went to jail for the first time.

On September 9, 1980, as part of an Christian anti-war group known as the "Plowshares Eight," Kabat broke into a General Electric weapons plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The activists — including militant peacemakers Philip and Daniel Berrigan — symbolically disarmed two nose cones, beating them, members said, into plowshares. The incident garnered national attention and was memorialized in the 1982 film In the King of Prussia, in which Kabat and the other protesters act out their trial.

In November of 1984, Kabat and a Madison, Wisconsin, mental-health worker named Helen Woodson were part of a team that took a jackhammer to a Minuteman II missile silo outside Kansas City. They managed to destroy three radar devices and the missile's concrete launch lid. For that, Kabat served seven years in prison; Woodson served nine. After being paroled in 1993, she robbed a Chicago bank and, on the lobby floor, set fire to $25,000 in cash — declaring money to be the root of all evil.

In August of 2000, while residing at St. Henry's Oblate Community in Belleville, Kabat was censured by Oblate provincial David Kalert after breaking into a missile site in Weld County, Colorado. Kalert cited an Oblate rule that requires Oblates to get approval from their superiors before undertaking civil protests. Kalert is currently working with missionaries in Zambia and could not be reached for comment for this article. A spokesman from the Missionary Association of Mary Immaculate in Belleville also would not comment directly on Kabat's situation for this story, but did pass along a quote from the Constitution and Rules of the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which appears to support Kabat's actions: "Action on behalf of peace, justice, and the integrity of creation is an integral part of evangelization.....Whatever their work, Oblates will collaborate, according to their vocation and by every means compatible with the Gospel, in changing all that is a cause of oppression and poverty."

Kabat grew up in Scheller, Illinois, about 80 miles southeast of St. Louis. He was ordained in 1959, and in the 1960s and '70s he did missionary work in the Philippines and Brazil. For the past three years, he's lived and worked at Karen Catholic Worker House, a shelter for homeless women and their children in the St. Louis Place neighborhood. It was founded in 1977 by social justice champion — and anarchist — Dorothy Day.

"A lot of his interactions revolve around humor," says Tony Hilkin, who works at the shelter. "He's someone that would have a new joke every day."

Though Kabat didn't tell his co-workers of his plans before embarking for North Dakota, Hilkin says, the protest and subsequent incarceration surprised no one. "He just mentioned he was meeting with folks and that he was going to 'do an action.' So, we figured he was probably going to get arrested. We knew that Carl's happiest in prison, if that makes sense."

Untrue, says Kabat with a chuckle. "I don't go to jail — that's where they put me. I would just as soon be home in St. Louis. Does a person like changing diapers on a baby? No, but it has to be done. These bombs could kill more than three million people."

If nothing else, Kabat says, prison gives him time to catch up on his readings of philosophy and theology. "When I'm out, I don't get as much of a chance to read as much as I would like," he says. "In a sense I'm freer in than out. When I'm out I know I should be protesting. We still have 500 insane nuclear weapons out there."

Perhaps the only downside of Kabat's incarceration is that he won't be able to spend time at a new shelter around the corner from Karen House, which serves the needs of refugees. Opened a month ago, it is known — in the clown priest's honor — as the Kabat Catholic Worker House.

About The Author

Ben Westhoff

Ben Westhoff is the author of the books Original Gangstas, Fentanyl, Inc., and Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and My Search For the Truth.
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